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Friday 10 December 2010

Review: 10 Dialogues at the RSA, Edinburgh

Review by Colin Herd

Timed to coincide with Richard Demarco’s 80th birthday, the current show in the impressive and expansive galleries of the Royal Scottish Academy celebrates his unique contribution to the visual arts in Scotland. Demarco was one of the co-founders of Edinburgh’s legendary Traverse Theatre in 1963, and went on to establish The Richard Demarco Gallery in 1966. The Demarco Gallery inaugurated close ties with international avant garde artists, especially those in Eastern Europe. In groundbreaking shows such as 16 Polish Painters in 1967 and 4 Romanian Artists in 1969, Demarco introduced Scottish audiences to new tendencies in European art. The exchange worked both ways, and Demarco regularly secured corresponding exhibitions and opportunities for Scottish artists on the continent.

The result was a sustained period of mutually fruitful dialogue, engagement and collaboration. The spirit of these endeavours is perhaps best encapsulated in the Strategy: Get Arts exhibition, which Demarco held during the 1970 Edinburgh Festival at the College of Art. Strategy: Get Arts shocked and excited Scottish art circles with the sheer scale of its invention and vision. Works included a jet of water installed by Klaus Rinke to be negotiated like an obstacle by visitors, and an interactive ‘feast’ staged by Daniel Spoerri. Joseph Beuys performed Celtic Kinloch Rannoch: A Scottish Symphony, incorporating film by Mark Littlewood and Rory McEwen and a soundscape by Henning Christiansen. To a projected film of someone filming the mist on the moor, Beuys pasted gelatin to the walls, removed them to a tray and quickly tipped the contents over his head. Documentation including photographs and a striking A3 exhibition-publication from this piece forms the core of Beuys’ representation in the current show. Other exhibiting artists at Strategy: Get Arts included Dieter Rot, Blinky Palermo, and Gerhard Richter. Andre Thomkins participated in the show, but perhaps his greatest contribution was the palindrome that served as the title and that seems to sum up the exchange backwards and forwards that characterizes Demarco’s curatorial approach.

Inevitably, the question-mark over the current exhibition is whether it can recapture some of the thrill and excitement of the shows it commemorates. The curators have structured it around the work of ten artists with whom Demarco has had sustained engagement. Six of the artists represented are from continental Europe: Joseph Beuys, Marina Abramovic, Tadeusz Kantor, Paul Neagu, Magdalena Abakanowicz and Gunther Uecker. The remaining four are Scottish: Rory McEwen, Ainslie Yule, Alistair MacLennan and David Mach. The large, airy space of the central main-gallery is taken up with a new installation by Magdalena Abakanowicz of ten huge welded steel sculptures depicting figures from the legend of the Court of King Arthur. Somehow managing to look like animals, humans, and machines all at once, the sculptures emphasize dialogue and connections through the rhythmic way their shapes interact and the scar-like marks where they’ve been welded. It’s a striking focal point for the exhibition, from which the other rooms lead off, and Abakanowicz’s unmistakeably contemporary treatment of myth and legend has the advantage of helping to point the viewer towards a productive engagement with some of the historical aspects of the show, to move beyond its commemorative aspect.

In two new portraits for 10 Dialogues, David Mach renders Demarco’s head in collages made from what must be thousands of postcards. By doing so, he literally makes communication, correspondence and dialogue the very fabric of Demarco as local cultural icon. This recent work sits in interesting counterpoint to the documentation of an earlier piece, Local Hero from 1992, in which Mach made a life-sized sculpture of Demarco’s head out of coloured match-sticks in a tartan-style pattern, and then set it on fire in front of an audience, outside the Demarco Gallery. Mach’s piece is an astute comment on the cult of personality and on art-world myth-making, especially in light of the controversy surrounding the Arts Council withdrawal of funding from Demarco after his support of the imprisoned gangster-turned-artist Jimmy Boyle. The burnt-out relic-like head is presented here alongside a film of the ‘performance’, much of which is taken up by people un-dramatically standing around talking, taking pictures, and milling around. At one point, in fact in some ways the climax of the film, Demarco makes disparaging remarks about the concurrent show at the RSA.

There’s something distinctly dark and unsettling about David Mach’s burnt-out match-head. Similarly, the work of Gunther Uecker is uncompromising and challenging. His wall-mounted wooden sculptures made from spiky shards of stone, wood and white paint suggest trashed canvases and boards. The fearless blend of natural materials in self-consciously painterly sculptures suggests an uneasy frictional dialogue between the two elements. A similar tension exists in the work of Paul Neago whose brushed and worn steel sculptural ‘hyphens’ look like they might have been up from a beach as driftwood. They seem to hint at a conversation of symbols we can’t understand. Another highlight of the show is an installation by Alastair MacLennan, a room filled with uniform rows of steel bowls that act as mirrors, reflecting the light almost like a kaleidoscope. Even the smallest sounds, too, seem to rattle around the pristine curves and hollows. A deceptively simple work, it provokes a surprisingly expansive emotional effect.

My only criticism of 10 Dialogues concerns the title. Given the witty and playful name of the landmark Strategy: Get Arts, it really stands out that the curators have gone for what feels like a howling misnomer. From a photograph of Beuys with Lady Roseberry and Buckminster Fuller, to the films of Demarco in lively conversation, the postcards in Mach’s portraits, gallery-visitors whispering and the echoing voices in MacLennan’s sculpture, this show represents hundreds of dialogues and thousands of potential dialogues, not merely ten.

10 Dialogues continues at the Royal Scottish Academy until 9th January. www.royalscottishacademy.org

Image (c) Ainslie Yule 04 – Wave & Ziggurat (detail), 2009 - 2010

Thursday 9 December 2010

Aesthetica Creative Works Annual 2011

With over 90 artists included, the Aesthetica Creative Works Annual provides a overview of innovative artwork and creative writing. The publication makes a stunning addition to any collection and is a valuable resource, offering insight into the artistic trends of the moment and fostering creativity.

Celebrating contemporary art and culture, the Aesthetica Creative Works Annual 2011 is an anthology that brings together the winners and finalists from the Aesthetica Creative Works Competition.

Inside this collection you will find inspirational works that survey the current state of play. The book includes artists from over 30 countries, and provides a cross-section of innovative artwork and creative writing, which stimulate new ideas and provoke discussion.

The Creative Works Annual 2011 can be ordered from the Aesthetica website.

Cover image:
Equation by Zsuzsi Csiszer

Wednesday 8 December 2010

Filmmaker Series – Part 2 Q&A with the Runners-up The Varava Brothers

Below is a Q&A with Jared Varava from the American filmmaking duo, the Varava Brothers. As one of the longer shorts on the Aesthetica Shorts DVD, it’s a brilliant narrative that highlights the modern-day dilemma. A man decides that his life needs to be changed. He takes an enlightening and competitively priced journey of self-discovery in today’s self-obsessed world.

To see this film or read more about The Varava Brothers read the current issue of Aesthetica Magazine, available online or from a number of stockists worldwide.

How did you begin filmmaking?
I made a horror movie with my friend John Westberg in high school called BLOOD PARTY. More than anything it was an excuse for us to build a bunch of elaborate gore effects and to murder off horribly clichéd versions of the teenage cliques we didn’t like. We thought we were revolutionaries. Turns out we were just angsty teenagers.

Who and what are your influences?
There are so many: William Eggleston, Bob Dylan and Godard who will forever be the most mind-boggling filmmaker, but in a good way. Also the Coen Brothers, coffee, whiskey and girls. The usual stuff, I guess.

What do you try to achieve through your filmmaking?
I had to write a thesis paper in college to accompany my final film and in it I argued in favour of creating a filmic tone that emulated the emotional result of combining the evocations of punk and folk music. To me that means an unbridled, sometimes forceful sense of urgency with a clear and sincere understanding of its purpose and subject matter, a smart, scathing sense of humour, seen through a beautiful, if not somewhat unrefined, aesthetic in hopes of really creating a deep empathy for the characters of a particular narrative. I think I’m still trying to achieve something along those lines.

Can you tell me about the balance between cinematography and narrative, which takes precedence?
I think it’s a balance of all things. I’ve seen a lot of beautiful, horrible movies and I’ve also seen a lot of movies with interesting story lines that would have been so much more effective with a better DP. We really lucked out with Damian because he has an amazing capacity to understand and internalise the overall tone of the film and then translate that into lights and lenses. A DP like that considers not only the narrative of the film when setting up shots, but the end product itself (music, pacing, etc.) and does his part—as every department does—to work towards a unified IDEA of what the final film is supposed to become. In terms of one aspect of the production or another taking precedence, I think that’s a bit of a dangerous approach.

Talk me through the process of making a film – working practice, shooting, collaborations, funding?
Working in independent films, the process is usually dictated to us by whatever circumstances happen to present themselves. It’s really an art of survival. We always try to surround ourselves with talented people whose work we know and trust, we try to be as meticulous in our planning as possible and account for every potential hiccup along the way, we try to encourage input and discussion while maintaining a rigid schedule, but it always comes down to problem solving and pressing on until each part of the process has been adequately fulfilled.

What was the most challenging aspect of making your film?
THE SHADOW EFFECT was a pretty ambitious project from the beginning. It required some large sets and cumbersome art direction (the recycling plant), a car chase, several different locations, a truckload of heavy gear, an additional production within the production (the soap opera), and just a lot of small details and moving parts that had to work in unison. If I had to pick one, I’d say the colour correction process was the most challenging. We worked out a deal with a high-profile post house to colour correct the film for a minuscule amount of money. These types of deals are great to keep the budget down but can come with incredibly frustrating repercussions. In this case, we had to work with a roving cast of night crew colourists, assistants, and interns who would randomly be assigned to our project. Each time a new person got involved there was a lengthy period of familiarising themselves with the project and, on more than one occasion, familiarising themselves with the colouring hardware itself. Over the course of a week or so we’d chip away, shot-by-shot, somewhere between the hours of midnight and 6 am. By the time we finished I remember having absolutely no idea if the film had a uniform look to it or not.

How would you define cinema culture today? How easy is it to make a film versus the process involved with screening and distribution?
Cinema culture is a subjective term. I think there are different cinema cultures existing simultaneously and all of them are accessible if one is so inclined to seek them out. Arguably the main cinema culture, Hollywood, is what it always is: the loudest, most publicised, most disappointing and sometimes most pleasantly surprising culture, but a quick spin through Netflix, a visit to the local independent movie theatre, a scan of various Vimeo channels, and it should become pretty obvious that there’s really no shortage of different styles and approaches to filmmaking and that with a little effort any taste, no matter how mainstream or obscure, can be satiated.

How do you feel short films fit into today’s cinema culture?
Sadly, I think that short films are largely disregarded in today’s cinema culture. I guess the argument could be made that everything posted on YouTube or Dailymotion or Vimeo is a short film, the internet has allowed for (and demanded) an influx of short form media, but I see a drastic distinction between a short film and a viral video. Short films, at least ones that are made with a certain degree of integrity and professionalism, are rarely seen by wide audiences outside of film festival screenings or the occasional international in-flight entertainment. They are most often screened to audiences that actively seek them out. They are primarily calling cards, and in our case a way to avoid stagnation while attempting to get a feature off the ground, which hopefully doesn’t sound too jaded, because I do like short films.

How do you make yourself stand out from other filmmakers? What’s your plan for marketing your films?
Admittedly, we are not the best at marketing our material. We try really hard to make genuinely good, interesting films and hope that they are appreciated as such.

What are your future plans?Make bigger and better movies, and hopefully pay back all the talented people who have done incredibly generous favours for us in the past.

Tuesday 7 December 2010

Review: Fade Away at Transition Gallery, London

Review by Charles Danby

Following hot on the heels of Transition’s inaugural ART BLITZ auction, a call to arms against impending arts cuts in the UK, the exhibition Fade Away retains a maxim of mass action and presentation, with the large group exhibition this time directed towards the hinterland between painted representation and painterly abstraction.

Presenting a single work by each of the 39 participating artists, Fade Away resulted in an even and dense distribution of paintings across and around the multiple wall surfaces of Transition. With works staggered just above and below a natural eye level, it drew gaze along an implied horizon that proposed a sequential (relational) viewing from one work to the next. This implicit orthodoxy did not however unfold a contingent narrative or progression of stylistic form, but rather a loose series of tendencies, components and directions within current British painting.

Catching immediate attention was a small section of wall directly facing the entrance on which four paintings hung. The largest, located slightly to the left of the midpoint, was the work Für Waldmüller (2010) by Eleanor Moreton. The title suggested a connection to the 19th century Austrian painter, Georg Waldmüller (1793-1865), and in line with this Moreton’s painting seemed to depict a still life assemblage of vases and flowers. The ambiguous surface markings of paint appeared in places to conjure partial disclosures of figures or perhaps fragments of skulls. Moreton’s dark, oblique and tonally flat palette, sympathetic and recursive to Northern European 16th and 17th Vanitas painting, was occasionally pierced by sharp hues of blue and red.

The work immediately to the right, small and alluring in its strangeness, was a red monochrome painting. This work by Clare Undy, Trouble (2010), was marked across its surface by a single twisted and curved line that appeared as a false or illusory rip or tear. This red on red mark was itself doubled by the inflection of its own shadow, which in marking the representational surface of the painting’s ground remained unrelentingly ambiguous, neither imbedded nor fully removed from it. Above and to the right was a similarly sized painting by Nathan Barlex titled Diluvial Geology (2010), which read loosely and through quick glance as another flower painting of sorts. This assumptive inference of subject may simply have been forged through its proximity to Eleanor Moreton’s painting.

Here the contextual allure of perceptual as well as technical, representational and stylistic form was exposed, underpinning within the exhibition a consensus that highlighted its tendency to supplant pictorial representation by exposing and indulging the sensory and material properties of paint. Fade Away in this sense moved towards an unconditional opening-up of a wide peripheral vision within the framework of painted representation and painterly abstraction.

Completing this four-piece arrangement was the small and disarmingly seductive painting Burn (2010) by Jo Wilmot. An almost square (20 x 25cm) white on white canvas aside for the off central depiction, between foreground and background, of a rolled mass, lump, or bundled figure. Across the painting brush marks lay testament to the presence of paint, its flow and malleability. While this privileging of mark was countered by the pictorial representation of a not quite discernable or knowable object, the terms of this union remained beautifully poised on an edge of instability. Added to which the pictorial scale of the central form seemed to change significantly when viewed from either a close or afar. The concise and not quite graspable articulation of this work was matched by a handful of others, most notably the gloriously contained glutinous pink-orange painting of Clem Crosby’s Picabia (2010), and the affecting nakedness of Alice Browne’s Watch Me (2010).

Elsewhere a recurring sense of geometric representation pervaded the works of Philip Allen, Mali Morris and Alex Gene Morrison, while a strand of figuration that at points turned more directly to portraiture, was evidenced in works by Lindsey Bull, Tim Bailey, Zack Thorne, Paul Housley, Sarah Lederman and Kaye Donachie. Here there was a sense that the number of works in Fade Away started to undermine the underlying concerns of the exhibition, extending its parameters too widely, and resulting in a splintered core that became increasingly hard to gauge. In extracting directives of figurative representation the inclusion of works by Bull, Housley and Donachie interestingly and astutely extended this rhetoric, while other works remained tied to concerns that offered far less or even misfired.

Kaye Donachie’s Under my hand the moonlight lay! (2010) showed the tilted head of a woman within a forest landscape. The faded blue-grey / green-grey palette exposed occasional flickers of pale orange that amongst the muted anaemic tones of the painting glowed as fiercely as the sun burning through a heavy mist. Here Kaye’s work pointed to a further tension in Fade Away, one that suggested the prevalence and connectedness of European tendencies of painting, particularly Belgium and Nordic, within a current catchment of painting from the UK.

Added to this, the small scale of the works shown, the largest being around 70 x 60cm, further permeated (even if falsely) a sentiment of quieter austerity or more reserved tendency within the works. A restraint, intent and discretion that again appeared significant and timely in its European rather than American affiliation. It was perhaps also a tendency that was given further substance by the close unity of generation (of the last 40 years of so) and geography between the artists, added to which was the actual slightness of the time that divided the works, with all of them painted within the last four years, and all but one within the last two years.

In slicing time so acutely Fade Away ensures that such questions of tendency can be asked, and while not all works fire so directly, it reminds us that if approached intelligently exposing tendency is rewarding and significant.

The show continues until 24 December 2010. www.transitiongallery.co.uk

Image: (c)Tim Bailey, The Debutante, 2008, oil on canvas, 40.5 x 30.5cm

Monday 6 December 2010

Review: High Society at the Wellcome Collection

Review by Robert J. Wallis, a Professor of Visual Culture & Director MA in Art History at Richmond The American International University in London.

“Every society on Earth is a high society”: from the caffeine in our morning tea and coffee to over-the-counter pain-killers and a “drink” on the way home from work, to hallucinogenic snuffs used by shamans in Venezuela, drugs are a universal part of human existence. This is the overarching theme of the excellent High Society exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in London (until 27 February 2011). Lead curator and widely published expert on the topic, Mike Jay, author of the stunning catalogue, makes no judgements as to whether drugs are “good” or “bad”, should be illegal or legal (the illegal drug trade is estimated by the UN at $320bn a year, around half that of the pharmaceuticals industry), but demonstrates in great variety how they figure in all cultures, through time.

The first cabinet displays a wonderful miscellany of drug-related paraphernalia to demonstrate this diversity: two contemporary glasses of “Wine”, packaged in plastic and ready for consumption are juxtaposed with a “Heavy fetish pipe” (Congo, late 17th or early 18th century), “Fly Agaric mushrooms”, a “Bundle of qat twigs”, “Betel nut cutters in the form of a human head with the wings and tail of a peacock” (Indian, 19th century), a “Kava bowl” (Vanuatu, contemporary), “Amyl nitrate capsules”(London, 19th century), a “Homemade crack pipe”, and a “Digital cannabis vaporiser”, to name but a few examples. The objects are uncluttered by labels although having to look back and forth to the labels on the wall behind was a bit awkward, but the point is made, enticing visitors into an exciting show.

The gallery space is spacious, though surprisingly subdued and clinical in tone(blue, black, white) for a show on drugs. The great range of mixed media is organised according to six themes: A Universal Impulse, From Apothecary to Laboratory, Self-Experimentation, Collective Intoxication, The Drugs Trade, A Sin, a Crime, a Vice or a Disease?; in a clockwise-direction, visitors broadly follow this format. A free exhibition guide repeats the introductory text to each of these themes, and an exhibit captions catalogue supplements this and the text in the displays by fleshing out some of the detail – only reading this would I have learned that Rossetti’s Study of Elizabeth Siddal for "Beata Beatrix" (1860) is included because the later painting on which it is based has the girl holding poppy flowers, alluding to Lizzie’s addiction to and overdose from laudanum.

A 7th century BCE Assyrian tablet from the Royal Library of Assyria at Nineveh recommending “azallü” for paralysis, flabbiness and “forgetting worries”, is the oldest object displayed. A ceramic “Opium Juglet”, c.1500 BCE, made in Cyprus and found in Israel is shaped something like a poppy head and painted with stripes which are suggestive of the incisions made on the capsule to leak sap and harvest the drug. Drug use clearly has great antiquity. Rare films of Tukano Indian shamans using the hallucinogenic Ayahuasca vine (1971) and the Waika Palm Fruit Festival in Venezuela (1959) involving the collective use of hallucinogenic snuff, show how drugs are embedded in ritual life in many indigenous communities today. There are also displays on the use of Kava in the Pacific, the “divine plant” coca among the Incas, and Peyote among the Huichol Indians of Mexico, but the ethnographic material is limited in a show otherwise dominated by Western encounters with drugs.

These encounters, though, are fascinating, particularly the influence of drugs on visual art and literature. The first illustrations of magic mushrooms appear in 1803 after Dr Brande published his 1800 description of a family afflicted by symptoms including hallucinations after eating fungi they collected in London’s Green Park (Andy Letcher’s book Shroom is worth a mention here). Thomas De Quincey, Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Conan Doyle were some of the earliest self-experimenters with opium, cocaine and morphine to leave records from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and early editions of their work are on display. An 1822 coloured aquatint entitled "Doctor and Mr Syntax with a party of friends, experimenting with laughing gas" satirises the trend for laughing gas “parties”; pictures by Henri Michaux of incredibly detailed doodles were drawn while under the influence of mescaline in the 1950s; and LSD blotter art colourfully signals the drug culture of the 1960s. An entrancing psychedelic light show reproduced for the exhibition by Joshua White (who worked with Hendrix, The Grateful Dead and The Doors), with a behind-the-scenes view, is a highlight.

Contemporary art is represented by Mark Harri’s (1999) fun video “Marijuana in the UK”, with the artist reading Benjamin’s Hashish in Marseilles and Baudelaire’s Les Paradis Artificiels to cannabis plants to make them grow faster, and Rodney Graham’s even funnier Phonokinetiscope (2001) in which he drops acid and cycles around Berlin just as the accidental discoverer of LSD, Albert Hoffman, did in 1943. The socially-destructive impact of drugs today is marked by Keith Coventry’s disturbing photolithograph Crack (2000) and his memorial-like Crack Pipe (1998) series of bronzes. Mustafa Hulusi’s sublime video work Afyon shows fields of poppies growing in Turkey: a source of Europe’s opium from antiquity to the nineteenth century, destroyed in return for compensation from the USA in the 1960s, with renewed production today for legal medical opiates, this ‘Epilogue’ to the show points to the enduring role of drugs in society and our ambivalence as to their rightful place.

Highly recommended – an unmissable exhibition.

Copyright Wellcome Library, London. From: Order this large Guinness for the home : the large economical family size : Guinness is good for you / Guinness (Firm), Redgate,Nottingham : [1925?] 19 cm. Library reference no.: GC EPH573:27. Wellcome Library Catalogue

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